Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Antichrist’

2 Thessalonians 2-3

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on August 14, 2012 at 2:58 am
Apocalypse

Apocalypse (Photo credit: Rich Man)

Read 2 Thessalonians 2-3 here.

Let’s finish up this letter today and move on to a new topic later this week. In the last post, we looked at Paul’s view (or whoever wrote 2 Thessalonians) that the Antichrist would have to appear before Jesus could return. For a brief but very informative description of where the idea of this evil figure originated, have a look at the PBS / Frontline website and its discussion of the apocalypse – some very interesting information about the historical context in which the idea of an Antichrist arose, and how the original ideas were re-interpreted during Medieval times into the narrative we have today.

Basically, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was an unimaginable terror to the Jewish people, including those who had adopted Christianity. The reaction in this country to the events of 9/11 might be a kind of parallel – the fear, the disbelief, the insecurity. Many first century Christians and Jews were sure that the end must be near, and drew upon the apocalyptic literature from earlier chaotic times – the writings of Daniel and 1 Enoch during the Greek occupation, for example – to explain the events occurring at the time.  In fact, apocalyptic writings were widespread throughout the Mediterranean for 2-3 centuries leading up to the time of Christ. Our fascination with ‘end of the world’ stories continues today in the form of novels and Hollywood movies.

Paul closes out the 2nd chapter of this letter by admonishing his followers to ‘hold fast’ to the teachings he has given them, either by letter or in person. He also uses a new term that is fairly important in many Christian circles – sanctification. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the Romans will explain this idea more fully – which could be evidence that this letter was really written later – so a short explanation will suffice here.

Justification is what happens at the moment of salvation. The sinner realizes he is guilty before God, and takes the grace offered him by the atoning death of Jesus. At that moment, God accepts Christ’s righteousness in his stead, and the sinner enjoys divine communion with God. However, the old sins and customs the sinner has practiced for years may still have a strong influence on his life, and the new saint needs to conform his life to that of Christ. This is the process of sanctification. You’ve accepted the gospel of Christ, but it may take some working of the Holy Spirit in your life before you completely escape your old habits and desires. The more fervently you believe in the truths of the gospel, the more complete this process becomes.

I often come across good Christian people who can’t stop beating themselves up over this process. The problem is, so much of what the New Testament says is contrary to what one finds to be true in daily experience. The struggle to believe something that is often of so little help in real life leaves people discouraged and confused. Jesus healed the deaf and blind in the Bible, but he won’t take my friend’s cancer away. Paul says I should stay single, but I’m really lonely and would be happier if I had a husband / wife.

I read a recent blog by rabidmongoose in which he details the struggles he’s going through because he doesn’t really believe in the resurrection of Christ. Instead of just admitting what his natural, rational intelligence informs him of – that it most likely didn’t happen – he continues to beat himself up because he feels his faith is not strong enough. Sad. The only way to really believe all this stuff is to ignore everything else, hang out only with others who believe, and spend most of your social time talking about your faith. Sanctification, in essence, is a kind of social engineering designed to make your life conform to the teachings of the church.

The final chapter is just a few verses long, mostly blessings, prayers, asking for prayers and the like. But one short passage really stands out, and forms one of the major tenets of American life, both religious and secular. Apparently, some of the Thessalonians had decided that Jesus was coming back so soon, that there was no reason to do more than just get by until he returned. So they stopped working, and began to look for handouts from others to support themselves. Paul disapproves of this and advises everyone to avoid idleness, with the famous phrase, “if any would not work, neither should he eat”. This King James rendering is the way I always heard it as I was growing up, but I think I prefer the NIV rendering, “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat”, because it seems to insinuate that the willing but unable must still be fed.

Nobody likes a freeloader, not today, not two centuries ago. This lies at the heart of the debate over entitlements in the US today. We don’t like to see welfare recipients become generational – that is, those who are on welfare today producing children and grandchildren who remain on welfare in the future. It lies at the heart of the Protestant work ethic that the lazy and shiftless are not chosen of God, and they have no earthly inheritance.

I can’t say that I disagree – I am an American, after all. But I need reward for my work other than the heavenly. I do think we need to have a discussion about what constitutes ‘work’. For a few decades now, we’ve admired Wall Street robber barons whose sole purpose seems to be taking money away from the financially unsophisticated – you and me – and enriching themselves at our expense. A spate of articles in the news recently describe how the 401k system, which was meant to replace the old company-sponsored retirement benefits with shiny new self-managed accounts, have mostly failed – except in their ability to enrich the companies that manage them. Much of what financial institutions proudly describe as their ‘work’ is high tech highway robbery.

So, in short, 2 Thessalonians contains a couple of ideas that are quite powerful in American thought – God rewards those who follow him, often financially, and has unimaginable punishment awaiting those who do not. The spirit of the Antichrist is already among us, and the political and economic systems we love and cherish are going to go through some pretty scary transformations before Jesus comes back to make everything right.

In the meantime, keep your nose to the grindstone.

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2 Thessalonians 2

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on August 12, 2012 at 11:52 pm

Read 2 Thessalonians 2 here.

Sorry for the long delay between posts; I should be back on track for a couple of posts per week. I’ve been reading some very exciting things that I want to blog about, but first —

We were talking about Paul’s vision of the Second Coming of Christ. It seemed to me – though one comment disagreed – that Paul was saying to those who suffered persecution, “it may be tough now, but God’s going to pay everyone back in spades one day”. Paul promises that Jesus will return and destroy everyone who doesn’t believe or follow the gospels. According to the Pew Forum, around 2 billion of the nearly 7 billion people on Earth profess some sort of Christianity. That means, God will destroy 5 billion people if Jesus comes back in the next couple of years. Staggering.

As I said before, this doesn’t sound like the supreme being of the universe to me – the most degenerate human would not dream of such a thing. And remember that half of that 2 billion Christian are Catholic, so if you’re a Protestant, you’d probably rule out another billion. And let’s not forget the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, etc. that Protestants say are not really Christians either. Perhaps God might decide that everyone who didn’t buy a Joel Osteen book or send 10 bucks to TBN is S.O.L.

But wait – before God wipes out billions of people at the blink of an eye, something else unthinkable has to happen – the Antichrist has to appear.

English: Satan as Antichrist

Satan as Antichrist

Chapter 2 opens up by encouraging the believers in Thessaloniki that the end times have not already passed. (Maybe encouraging is the wrong word, in light of what is supposed to happen.  I for one would be relieved to learn that I’d somehow missed out on the apocalypse). Apparently, some teachers were saying that Jesus had already returned – I’m not sure why that would make sense to anyone, due to the fact that their lives / religion / political system remained unchanged. But Paul assures them that Jesus had not yet returned, and reminded them that a key development would have to take place before he could.

Enter, the Antichrist. Here’s where some scholars point out similarities to John’s Revelation, written long after Paul’s death, to say that 2 Thessalonians wasn’t written by Paul. I guess believers could say that the similarities are due to the fact that the Holy Spirit is the true writer. In any event, the New Testament maintains that, in the last days on Earth, an extremely talented and gifted man will take over the political system. He is ‘the man of lawlessness’ or, as some manuscripts have it, ‘the man of sin’. He will apparently do miraculous things, just as Jesus did, but his power will come not from God but from Satan. He will “set himself up in God’s temple”, which I assume to mean the temple in Jerusalem.

If this was written by Paul, the temple would have still existed in Jerusalem – so points to those who favor a Pauline authorship. If this was written around 90 AD as some assert, then some retrograde logic or prophesy regarding a re-building of the temple would be required. Jesus speaks of rebuilding the temple himself, but it is generally regarded by Christians that he was talking about himself, not the building erected by Solomon and restored by Ezekiel and later Herod.

Many American Christians believe this temple will have to be rebuilt a third time at some point in the future for Biblical prophecy to come true. The problem is that there is currently a Muslim mosque, the Dome of the Rock, standing on the exact same site – regarded as third only to Mecca and Medina as the holiest places for Muslims. A good way to start World War III would of course be to try to build such a temple. It’s scary that many Americans would support such a move, so that Jesus could eventually return.

Paul’s justification for the destruction of those who follow the Antichrist is pretty interesting. They didn’t believe in Jesus, even though Jesus performed miracles and the Holy Spirit remained to point the way. Granted, they didn’t see these miracles with their own eyes, but they were supposed to believe anyway. Then, someone appears in their own lifetime, performing many of the miracles that Jesus performed, and is also assisted by a spirit, but this one is evil. They believe what they see over what someone wrote about a couple of thousand years ago, and “for this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth”. Sounds fair to me.

I won’t get into all the nasty things this guy is supposed to do – I’ll save that for our reading of the Revelation; and besides, you’ve seen so many Antichrist movies already, I’m sure. At first, it will seem like he solves a lot of problems. Then, he’ll become supreme dictator of the world. At some point, he will proclaim himself a God.

English: The Dome of The Rock Mosque, in the t...

The Dome of The Rock Mosque

In reality, this isn’t so much a prophecy as it is a thinly veiled indictment of what the Roman emperor had already done in Jerusalem by the end of the 1st century – and Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians and Persians had done before. It was a common practice in the ancient and classical worlds to enter the temple of a defeated nation, proclaim yourself or your god as superior to theirs, usually leave an obelisk or graven image of some kind in the temple that had to be worshiped, either along with or instead of any local god. The Romans respected Judaism at first, due to its antiquity, and exempted Jews from some of the practices that were required of other conquered nations.  This all ended in 70 AD. The Romans, having had their fill of rebellions in Judea, destroyed the temple, killed a million Jewish people, and enslaved perhaps a quarter of a million more.

The mainstream of Jewish religion pretty much changed from that time until now, giving up messianic and apocalyptic prophesy in favor of focusing on how to live a better live in the present. Christian teaching moved in the opposite direction, at least in part because they believed the messiah had already come.

But the real takeaway from this chapter is much more frightening than any Hollywood movie or religious nightmare. There are ultra-Orthodox Jews who want to rebuild their temple on the site of a holy Muslim mosque, so that they can make blood sacrifices as described in the Old Testament. (Not all Jews, but a militant minority). There are Christians who believe this is the right thing to do – after all, the end times and Jesus’ return can’t happen unless the temple is rebuilt. So, a very real conflict could occur in the Middle East because of the religious fantasies held by a few.

If there’s anything more frightening than the specter of the Antichrist, it is the chance that a few religious zealots could return us to the Dark Ages.

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